It’s a constant challenge for social causes: how to expand reach while really engaging potential and current volunteers and donors. The answer might just be found in the back pocket of a teenager’s jeans.
Cell phones, Nancy Lublin, CEO and chief "old person" at DoSomething.org, believes are the key to getting teens to act. DoSomething.org isn't asking for donations, it simply wants to continue to grow its platform to get more youth fired up about social causes. And targeting those under 18 can have a formidable impact on social change.
Consider the numbers: By 2015, Generation Next will be 82 million strong, a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps Generation Text is more like it; according to Pew Research Center data, teenagers average 3,339 messages a month. Over the past two years cellphones have enabled groundswells of support for everything from American Idol contestants to disaster relief. Pew found 14% of Americans who gave money to help survivors of the earthquake in Haiti did so via text message.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by nonprofits and other organizations focused on social change. For instance, Text4Baby is a free mobile health information service that provides pregnant women and new moms with maternal, fetal, and newborn health information via text messages that launched in 2010. Already, a research team in San Diego found that 75.4% of moms said that Text4Baby messages informed them of medical warning signs they didn't know.
No one, however, has yet specifically targeted texting teens on the national scale. Lublin says Do Something is about to change that. A small experiment conducted at their offices last summer gave her a glimpse at how powerful the medium could be to spark teen activism on the grand scale. While on a conference call, Lublin recalls seeing a couple of staff members running through the halls hi-fiving each other. They’d just run a test and had texted the mobile phones of defunct users that had received multiple email messages to re-engage. "In nine minutes, 20% responded," she asserts, and DoSomething.org was officially off to the mobile races.
Now Lublin says they are sending texts to about 120,000 adolescents a week and are launching their new membership drive on mobile. Through this new membership model launch the organization looks to create a movement of 5 million active members by 2015.
"The response rate [on cellphones] is consistently high," she says, averaging 10-20% within two hours of sending the text.
As one example, Stephanie H. Shih, responsible for DoSomething.org’s digital engagement, points to this latest text poll sent to about 113,000 teens: "Is college worth the $?"
Over 16,000 users responded with comments such as "I'm still in college so I don't know how things are going to work out. However I do love the life experience and the transition from childhood to being out there on my own. I hope it all works out though because this shit is pricey!" (Surprisingly, 67% said yes).
"Though it might not seem directly cause-based, cost of school (i.e.: education equality) is a huge issue for our demographic. We have a robust scholarship program that we award based on social cause activism, so it all ties back together," she says.
So far, DoSomething.org’s texts have shown that higher response rates are correlated with lower opt-out rates. In other words, Shih says, "The more engaged users are, the more likely they are to stick around, which gives us more opportunities to get them to take action."
But they still have a tough nut to crack. Though DoSomething.org’s messaging is aimed at 17-year-old boys, Lublin admits that they’ve been an elusive target while the preponderance of users are 15-year-old girls. Shih points out that branding for boys doesn’t exclude girls the way a feminine look and feel would alienate young men. Still Lublin says, "It’s one of the great mysteries of the planet what teenage boys do with their free time."
Lublin says they will keeping trying to crack the case. No strangers to internal change, Do Something’s been around since before the birth of the web. Founded in 1993 by then-TV star Andrew Shue, who took a star turn on Melrose Place (version 1.0, that is), Do Something has morphed from a series of scattershot initiatives and offices to a streamlined, web-based platform for social good.
The rules, however, have stayed the same. "Do Something has three rules: no money, no cars, no adults," says Lublin, because most teens don’t have access to the first two and want to be free of the third.
All those are good things according to Ben Riddle, a senior at Mauldin High School in South Carolina who considers himself a catalyst for youth-led collaborative efforts and the force behind HeadStrong, a local movement that enables youth to pursue their passions through experiential learning.
"I signed up for a Do Something scavenger hunt this summer and received a pair of made-in-China sunglasses from them in the mail. Didn't participate with the hunt because I was on vacation, but their efforts were well received," says Riddle who’s also considered applying for a DoSomething.org grant.
Riddle finds it hard to reply to a text with such little incentive. "I try to maximize my social impact by sharing updates with hundreds of friends and pages rather than responding to a single person," he says. "I'm all for dreaming big, but to have a chance to connect with someone that can fulfill those dreams makes working for a cause worth it even more."
That too, is about to change at DoSomething.org. Membership benefits are being retooled to include money and materials for teens to help get their own campaigns started and swag they can actually use such as movie tickets and food. In keeping with current celebrity partnerships, DoSomething.org will also give away celeb-signed goodies and/or the opportunity to meet favorite artists.
The times are ripe for rallying, says Lublin. The most common social causes among DoSomething.org members are homelessness, hunger, and animal rights. Last year, the annual Teens for Jeans campaign collected 1.5 million pairs of jeans, and the recent Step Up to Bullying campaign mobilized 35,000 teens to take action against bullying.
Though Lublin confesses that politics and economics are not high on the list (hello, Emma Sullivan) for most teens, but says that they "are way more creative than anyone I’ve met over the age of 18 because they don’t know how things have been done before."
Rather than play to the apathetic and cynical stance of teens in previous generations, Lublin says kids today, "have fresh eyes and pure hope. They are phenomenal problem solvers." And she adds, "Older people have done a pretty good job of messing things up. We had our shot. These kids don’t want to do it the same way. That’s really a good thing."
[Image of teen via Flickr user garryknight; others courtesy of DoSomething.org]